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United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the
second Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-2) satellite
for the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy photo/Pat Corkery)
travelling at a relative 6 km/sec it would have the
same kinetic energy as an object weighing almost
one tonne travelling at 100 km/hour. Wow, what a
collision! Consider how this could disable a critical
military satellite used by Australia.
Another development is the possibility of
anti-satellite missiles, signal jamming, or other
interference with the military satellites.
In 2002 the US created a Space Surveillance
Telescope program, using a ground-based
telescope with specialised optics, which can view
continuously a wide field of sky at very sharp
resolution. As well as looking for objects which
could cause collisions, the telescope can provide
rapid observation of transients events e.g . space
loads carried by rocket launches, improve orbital
predictions including identification of orbit changes,
and maintain a watch for asteroids whose paths may
bring them close to Earth. This telescope became
operational in 2011 and completed testing in 2012.
It is now in operational use.
Now Australia is to get one of these telescopes
to cover the Southern Hemisphere blind-spot in the
US’s space surveillance program. Coming under
the Australia-US Space Situational Awareness
Partnership, Defence Minister Senator David
Johnston signed a Memorandum of Understanding
(MOU) with his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel,
late last year for the relocation of a US space
surveillance telescope to the Harold E Holt naval
base at Exmouth, WA.
“Like all modern economies, Australia relies upon
space for a range of purposes, including national
security, banking, navigation, communications and
weather forecasting. Often we do not realise that
the technologies upon which our modern lifestyles
depend both utilise and rely on assured access to
space-based capabilities” said Senator Johnston.
He continued “Just as our dependence on space
is growing, however, so too are the risks to our
access to space. These risks include increasing
congestion of international and commercial space
use, and the growing amount of orbiting space
debris. The consequences of collisions in space can
be devastating and uncontrollable.”
“The space surveillance telescope will assist
in addressing these risks by improving the ability
to monitor space over the southern hemisphere.
The highly advanced technology of the telescope
will enable it to observe objects in space out to
36,000km above the earth.”
The telescope, which will be operated by
Australia on behalf of the US, will contribute to
the US global Space Surveillance Network, which
provides warnings to all satellite operators of
potential collisions with other satellites or debris.
A Defence Department tender for telescope site
preparations closed mid-August. Initial work started
in September, costing around $4.5 million, and
includes a construction platform and 900 metre
access track. The SST is expected to operate from
In an ABC interview the Minister was asked if
he had any concerns about this telescope being
used for spying. Senator Johnston responded “No,
I don't. I'm very much aware that this is for the
general use of satellites that are largely civil in their
output...I don't have the (MOU) document in front of
me. It was a very short document. It was about the
surveillance of space debris. It doesn't look at Earth.
It looks out from Earth into the outer atmosphere so
that it's, you know, it's focused on things that are in
the line of travel of satellites.”
In a separate arrangement, a US space-tracking
radar was relocated in August 2014 from Antigua,
West Indies, where it was tracking missile launches
from Cape Canaveral, to Exmouth, WA to track low
orbit (up to 1,000 km) satellites and space debris.
Not surprisingly, this radar could also track missile
launches in the East Asian region.
The US space surveillance network tracks about
16,000 objects ranging in size from the International
Space Station to 10cm pieces of debris
DO SATELLITES COLLIDE?
Most definitely. On February 11, 2009, a privately
owned US Iridium communications satellite collided
with a non-functioning Russian Cosmos satellite.
The collision destroyed both satellites and created
a field of debris, estimated as 15,000 items, that
endangers other orbiting satellites.
This 2009 satellite crash was the largest debris
event since China intentionally destroyed a weather
satellite in a 2007 anti-satellite test. But most of the
man-made junk in space stems from fragmentation
events, in which old and malfunctioning spacecraft
break apart or explode.
In the last five decades, an average of one piece
of debris fell to the Earth each day. Most of the
objects raining down burn up in the atmosphere
before they ever reach the surface. Those that
survive often fall into water because oceans make
up approximately 70 percent of the Earth's surface.
How can this space junk be prevented or cleaned
“Adhering to relatively simple practices, like
venting a satellite’s fuel supply at mission’s end
to avoid explosions and adding devices to catch
severed bolts instead of blowing them out into
Since the original Sputnik 1 satellite was launched by the USSR in
October 1957, thousands of satellites have been launched, many of
them occupying geostationary long term orbits 36,000 km above the
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